Intimate (and sweltering) Shirley Recital Hall on the Salem College campus was packed with music lovers seeking a live performance fix between the end of the summer festivals and the start of the fall season. Music Carolina, formerly the Carolina Chamber Symphony Players (1992), has filled the August music gap with its own festival for many seasons. Its eclectic programs, with community outreach, have something for everyone.
This enticing opening concert of Summerfest 2018 focused on the talents of one of North Carolina's most successful composers, Kenneth Frazelle. The then-15-year-old Jacksonville, NC, native attended the North Carolina School of the arts (now UNC School of the Arts). After graduating in 1974, he attended Juilliard, where he studied composition with Roger Sessions and theory with David Diamond. The broad and vital cultural life of New York City had considerable influence on him. Among the influences were abstract expressionism, minimalism, and poetry, especially that of A. R. Ammons. He returned to Winston-Salem in the autumn of 1978. Besides racking up a considerable list of nationally and internationally performed commissions, Frazelle is an accomplished pianist. He currently teaches in the School of Music and the School of Filmmaking of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
Each half of this recital sampled Frazelle as an accompanist of a variety of his own songs and a skilled interpreter of his own piano pieces. The first set of songs, drawn from his Appalachian Songbooks I and II (2000 and 2008), consisted of "Charmin' Birdy," "East Virginny," "Groundhog," "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss," and "Single Again." These are very sophisticated settings of well-known Southern Appalachian folksongs.
Frazelle's texts were expressively conveyed and sung by soprano Jodi Burns, a graduate of the fellows program of the UNCSA's Fletcher Opera Institute and a piano and voice teacher at the UNCSA's Community Music School. Her voice lacked nothing in power and was easily supported across its range. Her clear diction was a constant pleasure, as was her ability to project the mood of each song from the deep sadness of "East Virginny" to the homespun humor of "Groundhog," the thwarted love of "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss," and the harried mother of "Single Again." Frazelle's support was a constant pleasure, too, from his frequent use of crossed hands or surprise endings such as the abrupt note paired at one point with Burns' whistling.
The Steinway's lid was fully raised for five selections from Frazelle's Lullabies and Birdsongs (1988). These were "Hushaby," "Scarlet Tanger," "Mourning Dove," "Indigo Bunting," and "Serenade (Wood Thrush)." Frazelle's playing was extraordinary, ranging from the gentle mood of the opening lullaby to a haunting evocation of the dove to the soaring flights of fancy in his sonic sketches of the other birds.
Frazelle was joined by Burns to end the first half of the concert with "Naomi Wise," a fine example of a "sweetheart murder ballad." This tale of a man drowning his pregnant girlfriend reminded this Wilkes County native of "Ballad of Tom Dooley," made famous by the 1959 Kingston Trio recording. Frazelle's dark rumblings suggested the Deep River's threatening waters while Burns' phrasing captured the tragic mood and the lifelong haunting of the murderer.
Burns joined Frazelle on stage to open the second half of the recital with a deeply felt rendition of "Wondrous Love," a mountain hymn about Christ's sacrifice.
Frazelle's playing of five selections from Wildflowers (2005) was even more fascinating than his first set. Several plants were unknown to me. The selections were "Birdfoot Violet," "Flame Azalea," "Fire Pink," "Lobelia," and "Viper's Bugloss." "Flame Azalea" and "Fire Pink," colorful kaleidoscopic tours de force, were simply breathtaking!
The last set of was drawn from both Songs in the Rear View Mirror (2010) and the Appalachian song books. The former were inspired by the composer's visit to sights made famous by the Depression era photography of Walker Evans and William Christenberry. "Green Warehouse" limed a rundown shed. Both Frazelle and Burns pulled out the stops for "Kudzu!" As Burns slinked against the Steinway and vamped, I thought of the 1958 film of Erskine Caldwell's novel God's Little Acre. Was that a suggestion of stride piano in Frazelle's insinuating accompaniment? Winning Blue Ridge settings of "Bonnie Blue Eyes," "Sally Ann," and "Billy Boy" ended the formal program.
Enthusiastic audience response was rewarded with another sad ballad. The first line was "When I First Came to This Country," which appears to be known as "Pretty Saro," which has a checked musicological linage.
This was a marvelous recital, a winning broad selection, all superbly performed.
Frazelle's keyboard works deserve a substantial survey on CD. At least some of the songs can be sampled in Albany Troy 427: Art Songs from Carolina, featuring soprano Marilyn Taylor and pianist Robert Brewer.
This mini-festival continues through Aug. 19. For details, see our calendar.